Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why I am a Christian Part 1: A Question Worth Asking

Probably the most important question that any of us will have to face.
-Oxford Professor of Philosophy and atheist Arif Ahmed on the existence of God

Intellectually fascinating, as well as potentially vital, to how we see life, the universe, and everything. 

-Atheist philosopher Peter Millican

Most articles of this sort, where the author is trying to explain why they are a Christian, Hindu, Atheist or Green Bay Packers fan seem to be written by people who have experienced a dramatic shift of opinion. It seems to me that having previously occupied a different position adds weight to your current position and an impetus to write about it. Then again, perhaps it is just that articles with such opinion shifts are more interesting to read, more popular, and thus more likely to be read by someone like me. Whatever the case, I do not have such a dramatic shift of opinion to detail but I hope to make up for that by fairly addressing current objections to Christianity, currently the English language objections garnering the most ink are those made by evangelical atheists in the tradition of David Hume, Bertrand Russell and Antony Flew. These men were all naturalists and so much of this series of posts will explain why I find naturalism to provide a deeply incomplete description of reality.
But before really starting to answer the above question I think an objection that was raised most directly by Antony Flew, the world's leading atheist for part of the twentieth century, needs to be answered. Flew presented a now famous paper, Theology and Falsification to the Oxford Socratic Club (then chaired by CS Lewis) in 1950 and in it he attempts to end the discussion before it begins by objecting that words such as "Christian" are meaningless as they refer to something which cannot be falsified because we have no basis for proving or disproving anything that is not a part of the material universe. This sort of reductionist logic can also be applied to other words in the title so this first post will address Flew's assertion and explain why I think it is reasonable to believe that the statement "Why I am a Christian" is meaningful. If you think Flew's objection was dead boring or you simply haven't heard of it I'm afraid that this post will also strike you as quite boring.

All actions that are taken by human beings have a cause. I drink because I'm thirsty, or perhaps because milkshakes are delicious and I lack self-control. I eat because I'm hungry, or perhaps because Conan the Cannibal is trying to fatten me up and he shocks me with a cattle prod when I stop eating. Even the college-chic ideal of doing something that's... like, totally random! is not random but determined by the social and physical context of the day. This principal, if taken even further, can be re-stated: "true randomness does not exist." For instance the outcome of a thrown die is not random, the outcome of the "generate random number" function that most programming languages have is not random. Even the strange world of quantum mechanics does not experience total randomness (at least in my understanding) but rather an adherence to a sort of probability curve where the outcome cannot be determined with certainty but nevertheless some outcomes are more likely than others. The stock market is often described as a "random walk" but it is not random either, just very complicated. If the stock market were truly random it would fluctuate randomly between positive infinity and negative infinity but it doesn't do anything of the sort and, like quantum mechanics, it can be accurately described by probability curves and possibly by fractal geometry as well. Before you mistake me for a reductionist let me clarify that I don't think that all causes are physical causes. I don't, for instance, think that my writing this document was pre-destined to happen 13.7 billion years ago by the initial conditions of the big bang and subsequent pseudo-random quantum outcomes, I think that there are identifiable reasons why I am writing this post but I don't think that they can be fully explained by physical causation. I believe the human exercise of free will is cognizant of, but independent from, the natural realm. I believe that my decision to write this post was a real decision. These last two statements are more controversial than most people probably imagine, the average person assumes that they have free will but the informed naturalist is forced to disagree. To explore this a little more lets go back to the thrown die. The reason that a thrown die is not random is because it follows exact laws, as soon as it leaves the thrower's hand it's exact rest state is predictable with 100% accuracy. Now in order to make this 100% prediction you must know the following things:

1. The exact properties of the die
2. The exact state of the die with respect to motion and position at some point after it leaves the hand
3. The exact properties of the medium it falls through
4. The exact properties of the surface(s) it strikes before coming to a rest

Once you know these four things, computational fluid dynamics and some other sweet math will give you a perfect prediction. Now to better represent the naturalist's position lets take a second look at the statement as soon as [the die] leaves the thrower's hand it's exact rest state is predictable with 100% accuracy. The naturalist will remove the condition as soon as [the die] leaves the throwers hand because he believes that the actions of the thrower's hand are also predictable with 100% accuracy because they are governed by the exact same laws as the dice so the statement simply becomes [the die's] exact rest state is predictable with 100% accuracy. Notice that there are no conditions placed on this statement, though it is implied that there is some requisite knowledge that the predictor must have. But assuming the requisite knowledge is in place (and assuming naturalism) the naked statement [the die's] exact rest state is predictable with 100% accuracy... is true everywhere, and true always. A person in Greece could do it and an alien in the Andromeda galaxy could do it. Even though we are assuming that the die is thrown today the perfect prediction could be made in the year 1992 and it could also be made in the year 2300. Now in order to make these latter 100%-accurate-predictions the list of requisite knowledge would encompass a truly staggering amount of information... but let's take this even further. If you knew absolutely everything about the universe at any one point in time you could perfectly predict absolutely everything about the universe at any other point in time past or present. If you believe this last statement you are a determinist. Before continuing lets take a look at how the above could render the statement "Why I am a Christian" meaningless.

In order for that statement to have meaning not only must "Christian" have accessible meaning, but we must have free will and there must be something truly meaningful about life. If those criteria are not met then the title of this post is meaningless on several levels. First because asking "why?" is pointless if the answer is always "physics and chemistry" but even more fundamentally the very meaning of "why" is lost when the only thing that is going on anywhere in the universe is existing, under naturalism everything simply is and there are no "oughts," "decisions" or "whys." Indeed all of our thoughts, beliefs and actions are simply facts about us, rather like the color of our eyes or the length of our big toes - they are physical attributes corresponding to some physical arrangement or action in our brain that was determined by previous actions that was determined by previous actions etc. etc. all the way back to the big bang. "Christian" becomes just such an attribute, not a belief, but a descriptive fact no different than red, loud or "twenty two kilograms in mass." If this is the case, if we are just "bags of mostly water" whose molecules do nothing but follow the physical laws that govern all other matter, then it is clear that we can not have free will or do things that matter any more than all the other matter can. Thus it can be said that nothing, including Theology and Falsification, can be said to matter according to the criteria set forth in that paper... though I don't think that this necessarily means that Flew was wrong, I don't think that this proves that words referring to apparently unfalsifiable non-empirical things can have real meaning that corresponds to reality, for that I think we need to show that naturalistic determinism is incapable of explaining everything. Notice I'm not saying we just need to show some things that it currently can't explain, I'm saying we need to find something that is in principle impossible to explain under naturalistic determinism. Fortunately we now have the tools to do this, one of the great things about science is that it can not only prove things to be true, it can prove things to be unsolvable. For example in mathematics the Halting Problem and the Tiling Problem have been proven to be unsolvable. This kind of negative proof allows science to begin defining naturalism's boundaries and allows us to poke holes in determinism.

There are a number of serious holes in determinism, I'm going to pick on one of them which stems from the human brain. The world's leading mathematician, Roger Penrose, highlighted this problem in his book "Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness." In his book Penrose refer's to the late, great, mathematician Kurt Godel and his proof that mathematics could not be formalized. The word "formalized" is used in a very technical sense here, one that I think warrants explanation. Complete formalization means that any expression in a certain body of knowledge or discipline can be reduced to a known set of axioms (statements that are held to be obviously true) such as a = a. The game of checkers, for instance, can be completely formalized because it is defined by a known set of moves in a known context (the board), all of these moves can be calculated using the "axioms" of the game such as: "chips must move diagonally." The reason that this cannot be done with math is that the axioms are not all known, and axioms cannot themselves contain the information about the symbols that they are composed of. To restate this, in order for a system to extrapolate beyond itself and generate new data, it must first understand itself or there is nothing to extrapolate from; math cannot do this, it cannot define the symbols which it is composed of and thus cannot understand itself. For instance in the example a = a, the expression a = a does not contain any information about what "a" means or about what "=" means and thus cannot understand itself. In effect what Godel proved is that for any mathematical expression (not just the expression a = a) it is actually impossible for the expression itself to define the symbols that it is composed of. If it were possible, then it would be possible to construct an equation that yielded all possible other equations, math would be self-powered and self-discovering... But this self-powering, self-understanding, self-discovering is exactly what we humans do, we are able to objectively understand both the mechanics of the structure and the symbols of which that structure is composed and so we are able to reason about the structure and symbols from an outside-the-system viewpoint which allows us to "understand" things and synthesize new information. Penrose expresses the issue like this:

The very understanding that underlies computational rules is itself something that is beyond computation... ...One might imagine that it would be possible to list all possible obvious steps of reasoning once and for all, so that from then on everything could be reduced to computation-i.e., the mere mechanical manipulation of these obvious steps. What Godel's argument shows is that this is not possible.

But Penrose, unlike Godel, is an atheist who believes that man cannot be more than matter and so he believes that our brain must operate according to laws that have not yet been discovered, far more startling however is that he concludes that these laws cannot be based on mathematical computation, because math has been proven to be incapable of doing what our brains do (though later in the book he offers some possible places to start looking for solutions). All physical laws, however, are based on mathematical computation and it is extremely difficult if not impossible to imagine a physical law that is not based on such math. It is much easier, however, to imagine a non-physical law that is not based on mathematical computation, for instance George Aku's first law of peace is: Love. He who has it, has peace; he who gives it, gives peace; he who kills it, kills peace. The obvious objection to this last point is that Aku's "law" is actually not a law ...but why would it not qualify as a law? The only reason to suppose that it fails to meet the definition of "law" is because it is not based on mathematical computation (or perhaps that it is not provable with something resembling mathematical certainty) but this is precisely the definition of "law" that Penrose says we must reject because math cannot explain itself like we can ourselves. Let's digress for a second here because this whole issue of a system being unable to explain itself looks eerily similar to another issue. The Universe' inability to explain itself, which is another example of something that naturalistic determinism can certainly not explain. It was assumed for many years that the universe had always existed but scientific advances in the last fifty years revealed this to be an impossibility under the standard model of physics (actually even if the standard model were overthrown the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem would stand), currently physicists are probing exotic theories to see if it might be possible to model a universe that avoids the problem of a beginning but none have produced theories that are mathematically consistent and solve the problem of a beginning. The current "it-definitely-had-a-beginning" universe is unsatisfactory to many because of the "theistic implications" of a beginning; if the space-time universe (and thus time itself) had a beginning, then it must have been started by something that is both timeless (because time is a part of the universe) and spaceless (because space is a part of the universe) and has the power to create universes... which sounds suspiciously like God. There is at root a great mystery about the universe, why is there something rather than nothing? If something has always been here, why was it always here? There seems to be no possibility of a satisfactory answer to these questions under the assumption of naturalism because nature is necessarily a part of the universe and there was a "time" when the universe didn't exist. I'll come back to these issues in Part 3 but back to Penrose and Godel, this incompatibility of math+naturalism+humans seems to confirm my Christian belief that a non-material aspect of a human, namely the soul, is responsible for certain functions including our observed free will. If this is true, then it is not only reasonable to make statements about non-material things (e.g. "Why I am a Christian") but our ability to reason itself is only possible because of them.

Now I don't think that this is a knock down "proof" of anything, but proof in that sense is only available in logic and pure math (if anywhere) and I think Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is a strong example of why we can be reasonably confident that a non-material component of reality is required to make sense of what we observe in life. Antony Flew himself later recognized this, renounced atheism, and died in 2010 after publishing the book "There is a God" in 2004.

As an aside there's one other criticism of Christianity that attempts to end the discussion before it begins, an online community has emerged claiming that Jesus of Nazareth never actually existed; but given that, with one possible exception, there is no one on the planet that holds both a PhD in ancient history and the view that Jesus did not exist I don't think it warrants much discussion. The emergence of the so-called "Christ Myther" movement has been in the face of professional historians of all stripes, here's the only record I'm aware of, of a serious agnostic historian (one that frequently debates against the truth of Christianity no less) engaging in conversation with an online Christ-Myther persona.

Part 2